Close encounters of the clerking kind at Vulcan and I Luv Video
"You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into ... the Video Zone."
– from the opening narration of The Twilight Zone, with apologies to Rod Serling
Ever since I was a kid, I've always thought of video rental outlets, along with record stores, as being one of the top jobs in town, any town.
And I'm not the only one. Manhattan Beach Video Archives counts among its former employees a gangly know-it-all with a taste for Godard and exploitation cinema by the name of Quentin Tarantino. But like most record store clerks who don't actually make it out of the vinyl-haunted trenches to become the Next Big Thing (although, it should be noted, the Internet and MySpace fan pages have changed this to a remarkable degree in the last few years), most video store employees don't go on to woo the Weinsteins or sucker punch Natural Born Killers producer Don Murphy in a West Hollywood eatery.
In the face of all evidence to the contrary, working at a video store – an independent video store, that is – remains one of the most coveted jobs in Austin.
Don't believe it? Ask Vulcan South's manager Joe Shivers and his north store cohort Greg Nance (no relation to Eraserhead's Jack, should you wonder).
"We posted a job listing – one single job listing – on Craigslist three weeks ago, and we received over 400 applications in just under five days," says Nance. "The world is in a terrifying place," adds Shivers, "if that many people respond to a single ad for employment in a video store that was placed on Craigslist."
Clearly, that's not just the economic downturn talking. Instead, it speaks to the public perception that working in what is essentially one of the lowest strata of financial security not only has retained its essential cool and badass, slightly maverick fun factor over the years but – in Austin, at least – has become even more highly regarded. Why? And what really goes on behind the shelves, so to speak?
Having spent uncountable hours of my own life loitering in video stores across the country – often to the detriment of both my social life and whatever romantic entanglement I happen to be completely screwing up at the time – I can say from personal experience that when it comes to renting movies, like some Capra-esque sojourn to Shangri-La, getting there is half the fun.
I'm kibitzing with Shivers and Nance over at Trudy's North Star the other day, nursing a Tecate (the other two are bravely laying waste to the eatery's legendary Mexican martinis), trying to get the lowdown on why, exactly, the idea of working at a video store continues to blindside the otherwise rational, University of Texas-degreed minds of so many people in this cinemad town. I know the answer, of course; it's tattooed on my soul right next to the crimson admonition, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's European dub of Serge Gainsbourg's Je t'aime moi non plus ... unless you can get away with it."
But still. I want to hear it from those whose daily job is sticking metaphorical thorns in the sides of such scaly, corporate cultural vacuums as Blockbuster and Netflix. Like The Warriors, these two are resistance fighters in the armies of the night. Can you dig it?
"I started working at Vulcan on Guadalupe during the summer of 2001," relates Nance. "It was a summer college job that I kept well after college. It's been eight years."
Shivers, now the general manager at Vulcan South, has been there nearly as long, since 2002: "To a degree, the job is less cool than everyone thinks it is, you know, after you actually do it for a while, but it's still one of the coolest jobs I can imagine."
"The job really is held to a very high esteem," notes Nance, "and I think one reason is because all the independent record stores are closing and so are the video stores. Not here in Austin, actually, but pretty much everywhere else. It's like being the last of a dying breed, and that's always been kind of a cool thing to be."
Shivers: "The video stores are dying so much faster everywhere else; it's true. But here in Austin, and I can't stress this enough, we're having, literally, our best year ever. We're killing. We keep making more money, year after year. It's bizarre but great. This town fucking rocks."
No argument there. But, like any job that involves interaction with the public and a supercool, often late-night setting, there is a wealth of insanely great job-related horror stories. Like this one:
"It was maybe, like, four years ago," begins Shivers. "It was a night that some of our more frail employees were working, all the small, terrified, shy folk."
"Yeah, the last people you would want to handle a customer who gets physical," continues Nance. "Here's what happened: This sketchy-looking guy comes in and starts milling around the Guadalupe store. He shambles over to the music section at some point, finds two Cream DVDs, and then shambles over to the counter, bypassing the customers in line entirely, and just starts yelling at the clerks: 'Hey! I wanna listen to some freedom rock! Put these on!' It was as though he thought the DVDs were CDs and he's at Waterloo or something. That's one thing about Vulcan: Whatever we happen to be playing on the monitors when you walk in the store, that's sacrosanct.
"When the employees refused to follow his freedom-rockin' orders, he basically started a one-man riot in the store, throwing everything that wasn't bolted down to the counter at our employees, while continuing to yell out requests for freedom rock.
"Our workers were totally shell-shocked, customers are literally fleeing in terror out the door, and somehow, this frail-looking freedom rocker managed to pick up and throw our ancient, mid-Eighties, 20-pound monitors completely across the store, as if he had somehow harnessed the strength of 10 hippies. And then, when he ran out of stuff to toss, he ripped off his shirt and flung it straight into the faces of Danica Steinhauser and Hunter Harris, two of our employees, hitting Danica square in the face with this foul, sweaty, probably hemp-based, and tie-dyed wad of destitute hippie couture.
"Finally, he mustered his awesome hippie strength one last time and toppled two of our eight-foot tall shelves that then fell like dominoes – and very cinematically, I might add – spilling DVDs and VHS tapes everywhere. He was like the Incredible Hippie-Hulk, right? We did not like him when he was angry."
And then, of course, there was the time when – and this is prime Vulcan lore, to be etched in stone at some unspecified future date, one assumes – yet another bedraggled wastrel wandered in off the streets and loudly demanded to be allowed to rent a movie that he himself had directed, goddamnit, back when he was a big-shot director in this town.
"What you need to know here," explains Nance, "is that particular shift was comprised of two new people: myself and the assistant manager who – and nobody knew this at the time – was a raging heroin addict and was high as a kite during this whole situation. He would disappear into the bathroom for, like, two hours at a time. We just thought he had IBS or something. But no, he was a full-on junkie. This poor junkie-guy, who's normally half-lucid, has to deal with this semilucid homeless guy who's trying to rent his own movie from the store, and I'm unable to tear my gaze from this car wreck of a conversation between these two opposing versions of Altered States.
"So the senior employee/junkie tells him that if he wants to rent the movie, that was fine, but we'd have to set him up with a membership, we'd need to see an ID and either proof of local address or a credit card, and, of course, homeless guy is hearing none of that. He made this motherfuckin' movie, and, by god, he was going to exit the store with it.
"Now, what he did have, he said, was money, and plenty of it. So he tried to grease our palms with – and this is the best, or saddest, part, depending on how you look at it – with $200. Not legitimate U.S. currency, but Republic of Texas separatist militia notes. Needless to say, we did not take the faux-dough, and so the scuffle instantly devolved into the homeless guy ripping the VHS tape out of the hands of the heroin addict employee and running out the front door with it."
There's a punch line, sorrowful though it may be, to this Vulcanized night of chaos: The "filmmaker" in question really did direct the movie he was intent on absconding with. His name was Eagle Pennell, and the film was one of the great classics of regional cinema, Last Night at the Alamo. (Pennell's first feature, The Whole Shootin' Match, was reportedly the film that inspired Robert Redford to create the Sundance Film Festival.)
"After I realized what had happened and who this crazy guy was," adds Nance, "I sat down and watched Eagle's films, and, seriously, I was depressed for a month straight."
Such is life, or, such was the late, lamented Eagle Pennell's genuinely tragic career/narrative arc.
"I consider myself lucky to have met the guy, though," says Nance, still nursing a Mexican martini and lost in thought. "Ultimately, when it comes to working at Vulcan, I love it, and I wouldn't trade any of the last eight years for anything. I mean, Joe and I both graduated from college. We could be doing anything we wanted to. But fuck it. This is too much fun."
Over at I Luv Video, this year celebrating its 25th year as Austin's premier venue for the most obscure video loops known to man – and the largest independent video store in Texas – the mood is much the same. I Luv Video General Manager Ben White, Guadalupe Store employee Mike Rodriguez, and Steve Garcia, the assistant manager at the microchain's labyrinthine, catwalk-overhung manse agree: Everyone wants to work there, and if they can't swing that particular gig, they're just as happy to hang out and shoot the breeze, wandering, endlessly wandering, through the aisles in search of ... what?
Community, of course. Social solidarity. Austin's indie video stores have become – thanks to their sheer, unforeseeable endurance in the face of instant Internet downloads, the dreaded red-dupes of the Netflix gang, and the fickle fortunes of endlessly emergent new video technologies – a kind of homecoming, a safe haven for film fans far away from the frenetic, feeble summertime franchise films that glut the odorous cineplexes and new-releases-only Blockbusters of the modern world. We are film nerds, and we are legion, and these places are our homes, archives, and memory banks. (Also, and not to be sniffed at, they are places of meeting and kinship: Marriages – and more rapturous and perhaps short-lived romantic relationships than you can shake a copy of Thriller: They Call Her One Eye at – have burgeoned in the aisles and between the shelves.)
And then there's the fact that I Luv Video carries "adult titles."
"Mike and I worked at Sound Exchange together back in the day," explains White, "and he got me the job at I Luv Video on the Drag back in 2002. And just to say this, as far as weird anecdotes from the video store world, I think we're going to have Vulcan beat because ... we have a porn room. You can imagine what goes on in there from time to time. There was one time when a couple came up to the counter one night when I was working over at the Airport store and said: 'Hey, there's some guy doing some weird stuff in your porn room. You might want to go check it out.'
"So I look at the [CCTV] cameras, and he's lying on the ground with his dong in his hand, and he's pulling video boxes off the shelf and masturbating to them!"
This was, we assume, pre-Internet, right?
"Oh, yeah, but I'm pretty sure the dude wouldn't have had Internet access anyway. He was that type of guy. And I didn't want to actually go back there and see him in action, so I just kind of stood there by the door and told him if he didn't get out of there, I'd call the cops. And he ran like a rabbit. But that kind of thing happens from time to time, probably at all video stores, eventually."
Getting back to the question of why I Luv Video has prospered and, indeed, continues to grow by leaps and bounds beyond its current spatial ability to hold all the VHS titles it already owns, and why, just like Vulcan, its list of job applicants resembles, size-wise, a Manhattan phone book, White has this to offer:
"It's certainly not the pay. But, seriously, it's just the coolest job in the world. There's no uniform, there's no script you have to use when you answer the phone, like they have at most corporate video stores, and, really, for a service industry-type job, it's pretty much the easiest and most fun you can have eight hours a day.
"Let's be honest: You sit around and watch movies and talk about movies all day. And who wouldn't want to do that? It's the dream job for movie geeks, and it probably always will be."
An error appeared in the print version of this story. It has since been corrected.